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Inherent Vice is an incomprehensible pleasure

By Alexander Kim, January 15 2015 —

Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, Inherent Vice, makes no sense. And that’s the point.

Set in Los Angeles in 1970, the tail end of the hippie era, the film is an absurdist satire of the systems of power in American society. To an outsider looking in, normal folks are fucking insane.

Based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon, the film begins the way many detective stories do — with a beautiful woman enlisting the help of a private eye.

Inherent Vice’s investigator is Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a perpetually high hippie with mutton chops and dirty feet. Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), Doc’s “ex-old lady,” needs his help stopping a plot to have her billionaire boyfriend admitted to a mental institution by his wife (and his wife’s boyfriend). Doc is soon tangled up in a conspiracy involving the Aryan Brotherhood, a surf-rock saxophonist turned government snitch and “the Golden Fang,” which is either a mysterious boat owned by a reformed communist, an Indo-Chinese drug cartel, a syndicate of dentists (“For tax purposes. All legit.”) or a sanitarium associated with the FBI. It’s all connected, man.

As Doc follows the clues he meets the strange characters of L.A. In one scene, he’s riding in a car that’s pulled over by terrified cops. The cops, guns drawn, explain that “any gathering of three or more civilians is now considered a possible cult.” In another scene, a psychiatrist gives Doc a tour of a “loony bin” staffed by people with swastika face tattoos and security guards dressed as Jesus. It’s a pleasure to watch Doc bewildered by the so-called squares.

Phoenix plays Doc brilliantly and his drugged confusion is a source of laughs. In one scene, Doc hands off 100 kilos of heroin to an all-American family of four. He tries to make small talk as the father and preteen son move the drugs from his trunk to theirs. The mother and teenage daughter give him the finger and Doc stares at them, befuddled.

Inherent Vice features many standout performances. Josh Brolin gives a great comedic performance as Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, an LAPD detective with “a flat-top of Flintstone proportions and a twinkle in his eye that can only say ‘civil rights violations.’” Also noteworthy is Joanna Newsom as Sortilège, Doc’s (possibly imaginary) friend and the film’s narrator. Newsom delivers hard-boiled monologues mashed up with new age astrological nonsense, a perfect sum of the film’s tone.

Inherent Vice is not a typical detective story. The plot is impossible to follow. We don’t find out whodunit. This can be frustrating, but if you can let go of the need for coherence, there’s a lot to appreciate.

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